When I finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs today, my heart raced and my throat was tight. I was shocked and angry and extremely upset. I still am, after several hours. I feel for Nora Eldridge, the protagonist, as if she is my friend. And I ask myself a question: Is there no limit to human treachery and cruelty? Judging by what has been done to Nora, apparently no. No limit.
That’s a visceral emotion for you, evoked in me by The Woman Upstairs. Frankly, I don’t remember another novel that made such a strong impact on me, and I’ve read a lot of excellent ones.
The revelation! It’s not just a fireworks effect that Claire Messud has achieved; it’s an earth-shattering explosion! An explosion that will reverberate in us for a long time.
After I read the last lines, I flipped the pages back to the opening, to Nora’s question: “How angry am I?” And she answers, “You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”
This “that” hooks our interest immediately. Just what disaster has struck this woman so badly that she wouldn’t wish it on anybody else? And we’re dying to know. Especially after she tells us about herself—in a tirade, throbbing with rage and pain—how good she’s always been.
She says, “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty f… years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids…” and on it goes.
No, Nora Eldridge is not a girl, but a forty-two-year-old elementary school teacher, unmarried and childless, and she really is good—generous, kind, accommodating, even-tempered, polite, loving, selfless, reliable, and totally undemanding. But that’s what people see in her. As Claire Messud said at the Book Festival (see my blog entry, Sept. 1st), she likes to explore the “interior” life of a person. And explore she does. No one even suspects that Nora is also passionate, dreaming, ambitious, and deeply dissatisfied. Yes, she helps everyone willingly, but it doesn’t mean that she likes to be taken for granted, to be overlooked. A closet artist, she wants to be her own self, to create her art, to be recognized, but she’s too unsure of herself and of her artistic talent. She’s always dreamed about a career as an artist, but she doesn’t “seem to make the cut.” She can’t connect her dream in her head of being an artist, and her dream in the world of being an artist. (196)
And then she tells us about what has happened to her, why she’s left devastated. She tells all of it. How she received a new student in her class and how she met his intellectual, well-traveled, fascinating family from abroad, and how they became close friends, and how at the end she’s “rewarded” (my word) for her devotion to them. This “reward” is their betrayal on an unprecedented scale. Which astounds us to the core.
I hope I haven’t revealed too much, and if so, I do apologize. Actually, I haven’t said more than you can read on the jacket of the book.
Claire Messud shows us just how blind and gullible we can be when we admire and love someone; and how the betrayal and treachery of someone we admire can feel worse than murder.
Claire Messud is an extraordinary writer. I love her writing style. Her sentences are long. And I mean, long! But there’s so much passion and meaning packed in every one of them that you read them in one breath, eager to go on and on, until you finish. Yet, paradoxically, the novel is not a page turner in a usual sense of a thriller (despite its suspense), because it’s so profound and thought-provoking that you want to take a break, here and there, and think, really think. The novel is brilliant; it engages your entire being—your heart, your soul, your mind. It is a masterpiece!
One of my favorite lines: “I’ve discovered over the years that the simplest explanation is almost always the right one; and that hunger of one kind or another—desire, by another name—is the source of almost every sorrow.” (57)
I highly recommend The Woman Upstairs and I would absolutely love to talk about it with you—it is so rich for discussion!